Royal author Andrew Morton’s new book about the Queen and her sister, Princess Margaret, challenges conventional wisdom about their relationship.
Here, in the final part of our serialisation, he reveals how the two women’s bond was unbreakable, despite Margaret’s wild love life.
Princess Margaret’s sudden illness during a Royal visit to Paris had taken everybody by surprise.
Coughing loudly, she told aides she was too unwell to attend an official lunch where she would be guest of honour and would rest instead.
Only later did it emerge that far from being ill, Margaret had spent the day having her hair done by one of France’s most celebrated stylists before going on to a dress fitting with Dior.
For Cynthia Gladwyn, wife of the British Ambassador to France, the 29-year-old Princess’s actions had been unforgivably rude.
‘She wishes to convey that she is very much the Princess, but at the same time she is not prepared to stick to the rules if they bore or annoy her,’ she said.
It was a pattern of behaviour that had been increasingly evident following the Princess’s split from her divorced lover Peter Townsend four years earlier.
Since then, according to senior courtier Tommy Lascelles, Margaret had become ‘selfish, hard and wild’, enjoying the perks of Royalty while reluctant to embrace its responsibilities.
Margaret experienced a deep sense of hurt and betrayal watching the Panorama interview as she had considered herself an ally, a guide and a friend to Princess Diana
Margaret’s attitude towards her sister, the Queen, was similarly erratic and often discourteous. On the one hand, she was the most loyal of supporters. ‘My task in life is to help the Queen,’ she often said.
But on other occasions her actions betrayed a resentment and indifference towards her sister that left even long-serving courtiers who knew her well shaking their heads.
At a state banquet in 1957, when the Queen was complimented by a Government Minister on her evening dress, Margaret casually remarked in front of other guests: ‘Darling, that does show your bosom too much.’
And when the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary in the same year, Margaret missed a celebration dinner, to go to a West End musical with friends.
She returned to Buckingham Palace at midnight when the party was nearly over, without a present, a card or even an apology.
Nor did her mother escape Margaret’s apparent resentment and withering putdowns.
‘Why do you dress in those ridiculous clothes?’ the Princess would regularly demand. After she visited the Queen Mother’s beloved Scottish retreat, the Castle of Mey, which had inspired her spiritual recovery after the death of George VI, Margaret was similarly dismissive.
‘I can’t think why you have such a horrible place,’ she sneered. Her mother replied: ‘Well, darling, you needn’t come again.’ And she didn’t.
Princess’s Margaret’s contrary and contradictory behaviour defined not only her legacy as a working Royal but her tumultuous love life.
While she seemed to think nothing of embarrassing the Monarchy with her hedonistic lifestyle and sexual excesses, she was rigidly intolerant of other Royal Family members who appeared to be letting the side down.
This would take its extremest form in her vehement disapproval of Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.
Perhaps it was not surprising that when Margaret fell in love again following the Townsend debacle, it was with a man who, like her, was full of contradictions.
Talented and charming, the renowned society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones was also impetuous and unpredictable, and occasionally cruel.
In the early days of their relationship, he knew how to strike exactly the right balance between daring and deference. He always addressed Margaret as ‘Ma’am’, even as he enticed her into his unorthodox, bohemian lifestyle.
For the most part, though, it was a one-dimensional relationship. As one of her husband’s friends recalled: ‘What he had foremost in common with Princess Margaret could be put in three words: sex, sex, sex.
‘Theirs was a terribly physical relationship. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other, even with other people present. He was very well made and obviously that had a lot to do with it.’
In the summer of 1959, Margaret’s family were told of her secret relationship, with the Queen Mother declaring herself thoroughly enchanted by this charming, easy-going but eminently talented young man.
She did everything she could to support her daughter’s unconventional romance, allowing them to use her home, Royal Lodge, Windsor, where they indulged their fondness for ‘skinny-dipping’ at midnight in the pool.
After their 1960 wedding and a six-week honeymoon, the couple set up home in Kensington Palace, where an invitation to supper or a singalong around the grand piano became the hottest ticket in town.
Their social circle included designer Mary Quant, writer Edna O’Brien, actor Peter Sellers and his wife Britt Ekland, ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, and trend-setting hairdresser Vidal Sassoon.
Now called the Snowdons, they befriended The Beatles, with John Lennon nicknaming the couple ‘Priceless Margarine’ and ‘Bony Armstrove’.
‘I adored them because they were poets as well as musicians,’ the Princess later recalled. Margaret was a pioneer in trying to remove the barriers of snobbery and protocol – but not all. There was for ever a gulf, a self-conscious line that few crossed.
‘I often stayed with them for weekends and you never quite knew what you were going to get; friendly Margaret or ‘Ma’am’,’ observed Lord Snowdon’s business manager Peter Lyster-Todd.
Sadly, the marriage turned sour within only a few years. The traits that had at first united the couple, similar in so many ways, now gradually divided them.
With their personalities ‘too alike, too selfish’, as friends recalled, they were bound to clash. In the battle of wills, Snowdon, as the Queen’s biographer Sarah Bradford noted, was much better at being nasty than Margaret.
He resorted to writing cruel one-liners, such as ‘You’re fat and I hate you’, which he tucked away in her glove drawer or inside her books. One note said: ‘Twenty-Four Reasons Why I Hate You.’
A crushed Margaret confided to a friend: ‘I can’t think of 24 reasons to hate ANYBODY.’
A highly sexual young woman, Margaret yearned for male attention. With her husband often away on business, she sought reassurance from Anthony Barton, one of his Cambridge friends.
In early 1966, with Snowdon on a photographic assignment in India, Barton visited Margaret at Kensington Palace. That evening, she made her move. ‘Let’s go to bed,’ she boldly told her startled guest.
When Barton declined, the Princess inched closer and cooed: ‘Well, I think you could be a bit more cuddly.’ A short-lived but passionate dalliance followed, until Margaret tearfully confessed to Barton’s wife.
The final decade of Margaret’s life had brought the Royal sisters together in a way they had not experienced for many years
Later that year, she began another brief liaison – with Robin Douglas-Home, an aristocratic nightclub pianist and well-known womaniser.
With her husband again away, Margaret and Robin began meeting at Kensington Palace, where, according to one report, they were discovered by a servant having sex on the sofa. Margaret stared at the servant until he left the room and then carried on as though nothing had happened.
An experienced and attentive seducer, Robin made the Princess feel desirable again. On Valentine’s Day 1967, she wrote him a gushing letter. ‘Darling, thank you for a perfect weekend,’ she wrote. ‘Thank you for being gentle when it was unexpected, which gave me back my self-confidence.’
Another time she wrote: ‘I think all the time of you. Not many people are lucky enough to have known a love like this. I feel so happy it has happened to me.’
How her letters surfaced in an American magazine is uncertain, but their publication forced her husband, then in New York, to make a public statement denying a marital crisis.
By now, the marriage had virtually disintegrated. But even as the Snowdons’ relationship grew more vindictive, they remained sexually involved, their bitter arguments serving as a kind of foreplay.
According to one close friend: ‘It was the last thing to die in their relationship. Had it not been for the sex, their marriage would have collapsed far sooner.
‘They had an incredible lust for each other. They would touch and squeeze each other in front of friends and strangers alike. One could sense them straining at the bit in their eagerness to get to the bedroom.’
Princess Margaret described her husband’s sexual domination, saying that he would fling open the bedroom door and stand before her naked. ‘Well, what could I do?’
When the couple’s break-up was finally formalised in 1978, their divorce was the first in the Royal Family for 400 years.
Even in the early years of her marriage, Margaret had always had a covetous eye for the opposite sex. Her friend Anne Glenconner recalled: ‘She liked the gentlemen very much. If she saw somebody, she would say, ‘Who’s that? I’d like to meet him.’ ‘
The actor Brian Cox got an unexpected 23rd birthday present when Margaret went backstage after watching a West End performance. He recalled: ‘She put her fingers on my shirt, and said, ‘This is a lovely shirt.’ And she started to run her fingers down the inside of my shirt. And I went: Uh-oh! What do you do when you’re being touched up by a Royal?’
In the years leading up to her divorce and in its immediate aftermath, however, Margaret’s hedonistic lifestyle moved up to a different level.
With her passion for tropical holidays on the Caribbean island of Mustique and her devotion to her much younger lover, Roddy Llewellyn, her image inspired a culture of media stories and television documentaries centred around her apparently lascivious behaviour.
The woman who had once loved ballet, the theatre and theological discussion no longer existed in the popular imagination.
One brief encounter on Mustique in the early 1970s, with British gangster and part-time actor John Bindon, sparked this explosion of interest.
Bindon had openly boasted about having sex on the beach with the Princess. His girlfriend, baronet’s daughter Vicki Hodge, backed his claims, saying that when they first met over lunch on the island, Margaret was intrigued by ‘his cockney accent, his rhyming slang, and dirty jokes’.
‘When I saw them together, they were magnetised to each other,’ she recalled. ‘They were obviously involved. You could tell it in their body language. The fact that I was his girlfriend didn’t really matter. It was, ‘Step aside, baby.’ ‘
Bindon also claimed that the Princess continued to see him in London, sending her car to pick him up for trysts. Though tantalisingly salacious, for the most part his memoirs were untrue or exaggerated.
Not that life on Mustique was a sunshine version of a vicar’s tea party.
Another image that made its way into a British newspaper showed Roddy Llewellyn, along with Margaret’s former boyfriend Colin Tennant and island manager Nicholas Courtney photographed by the Princess in various poses on the beach, all of them stark naked.
The narrative of the pleasure-loving, self-indulgent Princess and her toyboy lover was now gaining ground, with an opinion poll showing that nearly three-quarters of the public felt the relationship with Llewellyn (who had been a lowly researcher at the College of Arms) harmed Margaret’s standing as a Royal.
However, her family accepted that he brought comfort to the Princess – even though the Monarchy paid a high price. While the Queen Mother occasionally entertained her daughter’s lover at Royal Lodge, the Queen refused to invite him to any of her private homes.
Llewellyn had met Her Majesty only once, and under deeply embarrassing circumstances. At Royal Lodge, wearing only a shirt and underpants, he went looking for the Snowdon children’s nanny, Verona Sumner, to sew on a button.
When he finally found Sumner, she was talking to the Queen. ‘Please forgive me, Ma’am, I look so awful,’ Llewellyn stuttered.
‘Don’t worry – I don’t look very good myself,’ the Queen answered politely before exiting the room.
As the Queen made clear to Margaret, she had to protect the Monarchy. She was acting as Sovereign first, sister second. Over the years, she had done everything possible to accommodate and welcome the men in Margaret’s life. Not this one.
But at Margaret’s funeral in 2002, her attitude seemed to have softened. She took Anne Glenconner to one side and thanked her for bringing Roddy Llewellyn into Margaret’s life. She told her: ‘I’d just like to say, it was rather difficult at moments but I thank you so much for introducing Princess Margaret to Roddy. He made her really happy.’
This was quite a remarkable turnaround by the Queen. It seemed as if she had learned, through her own travails with her children and their marriages, to be more accepting and understanding.
The final decade of Margaret’s life had brought the Royal sisters together in a way they had not experienced for many years, the Princess proving herself time and again a loyal and devoted supporter. Particularly during the Queen’s ‘annus horribilis’ in 1992, with the separations of the Duke and Duchess of York and of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Princess Anne’s divorce and the Windsor Castle fire.
After embarrassing photographs were published of the Duchess of York having her toes sucked by her ‘financial adviser’ John Bryan by the side of a villa pool in the South of France, Margaret, no stranger herself to compromising pictures, sent Sarah Ferguson a withering letter.
It said: ‘You have done more to bring shame on the family than could have been imagined. Not once have you hung your head in embarrassment even for a minute after those disgraceful photographs. Clearly, you have never considered the damage you are causing us all.’
There were double standards here, as Fergie immediately recognised – particularly considering that Margaret herself was the photographer when three naked men pranced before her on Mustique.
The hypocrisy was not lost on the errant Duchess. As she contemplated Margaret’s closest family, she thought to herself: ‘There but for the grace of God go the lot of you.’
Margaret’s response to what she saw as Diana’s betrayal of the Royal Family was, however, even more extreme.
While the Queen had been prepared to allow the Waleses’ marriage to plod on following their separation, in the forlorn hope that there could be a reconciliation, Margaret was under no such illusions. In her view, delay only tarnished the monarchy.
Her opinion was reinforced after Diana gave her BBC1 Panorama television interview.
Margaret experienced a deep sense of hurt and betrayal as she watched the programme. She had considered herself an ally, a guide and a friend who had invested time and effort in integrating the Princess into the rarefied Royal world.
Indeed, Diana told me herself of her deep appreciation for Margaret. ‘I’ve always adored Margo,’ she said. ‘I love her to bits and she has been wonderful to me from day one.’
Margaret had encouraged the Queen, sometimes against her better judgment, to indulge Diana’s whims and caprices and to cut her some slack as she settled into Royal life. But as she saw it, Diana had repaid the family by airing their dirty linen in public.
Once her staunchest supporter, Margaret became Diana’s fiercest critic. She sent Diana a ‘wounding and excoriating’ letter accusing her of letting everyone down. She had obviously been ‘incapable of making even the smallest sacrifice’, she wrote.
Not only did Margaret cut off all contact with the Princess, she also made it clear to her own children that she did not want them fraternising with the enemy.
So complete was the split that in July 1996, when Diana bought a present for Margaret’s daughter Lady Sarah Chatto’s first baby, Diana timidly passed it on to Margaret’s chauffeur and asked him to deliver it.
In the aftermath of Diana’s death, Margaret believed that the family, then staying at Balmoral, should have no more to do with the funeral than absolutely necessary. A private funeral for a private citizen was her verdict.
Throughout what became known as the worst week of the Queen’s reign, Margaret continued her rearguard action. She didn’t think Diana’s coffin should rest in the Chapel Royal, nor that the Union Flag should fly at half-mast above Buckingham Palace. Having returned to London, Margaret grumbled over the smell of rotting cellophane-wrapped flowers – five feet deep in some places – piling up outside the gates of Kensington Palace.
She expressed her bafflement about what she called this ‘floral fascism’. ‘It was like Passchendaele,’ she complained, describing how the lawns were churned into mud by mourners.
Even by Princess Margaret’s standards, it was a remarkably insensitive comment. ‘The Di thing was all too much,’ she continued. ‘The flowers on the paths everywhere were just awful.’
The day of the funeral also symbolised the differing formal reaction to Diana’s death by the Queen and Margaret. Standing outside Buckingham Palace, waiting for the gun carriage carrying her body, somewhat bizarrely Margaret was talking to her sister about improving the lavatories at Kensington Palace.
Then, as the funeral cortege passed, the Queen respectfully bowed her head while Margaret gave the most cursory of nods, looking for all the world as though she wanted to be elsewhere.
She never forgave Diana for what she saw as her betrayal not only of the Royal Family, but also of her personally. Margaret did her best to expunge Diana’s memory, destroying scores of letters written by her.
NEARLY 20 years after her death, the public perception of Princess Margaret remains that of a fast-living socialite who spent much time partying and lounging about in the Caribbean. But less well known was that she also dedicated her life to serving her sister and to upholding the values of Monarchy.
It was a quality the Queen appreciated in full measure, and from time to time she defended her younger sister from what she considered to be unfair attack by MPs and others.
When Duff Cooper, the former British Ambassador to France, had met the 18-year-old Princess Margaret at a lunch in 1948, he noted in his diary that she was ‘very sure of herself and full of humour. She might get into trouble before she’s finished’.
He was right. Margaret did indeed ‘get into trouble’ – and plenty of it. But she will also be remembered as one of the 20th Century’s most intriguing, complex and colourful characters. Imperious and haughty as well as loyal and thoughtful, she was above all, as those who knew her would attest, never dull.
© Andrew Morton, 2021
lAbridged extract from Elizabeth & Margaret: The Intimate World Of The Windsor Sisters, by Andrew Morton, published by Michael O’Mara at £20. To pre-order a copy for £17.60, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before April 18. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.